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'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' Review: Will Sharpe captures the spirit of art

'The Electrical Life of Louis Wain' - Will Sharpe

“This is a true story,” a narrator announces as the curtain rises on The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. The announcement is necessary. What we have here is an essentially accurate biography that comes across as fantasy, containing characters and situations that seem to belong in one of Wes Anderson’s more fanciful stories. The title character, around whom the action revolves, is oddest and most unlikely of all, but his story is made not only entertaining but alternately funny and heart-rending, as well as more than a little disturbing.

Director Will Sharpe introduced the film during its screening at the Toronto Film Festival, describing it sparingly as “the story of an artist who specialised in the drawing and painting of cats”. Louis Wain was, in fact, as peculiar an artist as he was a man, and became known through a series of flukes. Sharpe noted, “Many of you may have come across Louis Wain in your lifetime without realising”. This will become apparent to most viewers when Wain’s drawings appear in the film. His artwork, and its strange mixture of caricature, sentimental kitsch, and sinister mysticism, has become familiar even though the artist himself is largely unknown. It seems to be the precursor to a great deal of popular artwork and decoration, from children’s picture-book illustrations to the famously trashy paintings of dogs playing cards. 

The director further explained Wain’s unlikely significance: “In part, [the film] is a celebration of a forgotten but brilliant artist. Many claim he’s the reason we keep cats as pets today in the UK. Before these pictures rebranded them as cute, cuddly creatures, they were basically seen as vermin, and it would have been considered quite an eccentric thing to do, to have a cat in your home.” Whether or not Wain had such a universal impact, his sketches seem to have increased the popularity of cats as housepets and influenced popular art forever.

The film’s format is unusual, combining documentary style with drama, and realism with absurd caricature. Its introductory scene includes a voice-over narrator (Olivia Colman) describing, in a whimsical manner, Louis Wain’s work and how it influenced our attitude toward cats. The actual biography opens in 1861, with a young Louis Wain (Benedict Cumberbatch) clearly out of place on a train car filled with livestock, returning from a country show. He unself-consciously sketches the farm animals, his sole purpose in boarding the train. Wain’s drawings are effortlessly realistic, and the film goes on to establish that his artistic skill is remarkable. He is fully ambidextrous and can draw perfectly accurate portraits in seconds, using two pens simultaneously, although he prefers to produce elaborate, fantasy paintings to portraits. Unfortunately, art is his one and only talent; almost everything else, from basic social skills to handling money, to the boxing he hopefully takes instruction in but cannot master, is completely beyond him.

Sharpe remarked on the reasons he was drawn to the story of Louis Wain, statng: “[The film is] a celebration of the spirit in which he lived his life. It was an extraordinary life. He showed enormous courage and resilience in the face of multiple challenges. He lived through some difficult times, which I think is something we can all relate to at the moment. Finally, I’d say it’s a celebration of the outsider. For a variety of reasons, Louis Wain was someone who lived on the fringes of society for periods of his life; but he found a way to make a connection with other people, not least with his wife, Emily; and with his pet cat, Peter; and I think, more than ever, it’s important to remember the power of making these connections with each other, and with the world. That’s what his work did for me.”

Following the death of his father, Louis Wain became responsible for the household, including his mother and several younger, unmarried sisters, a responsibility he is comically unequal to. To his family’s dismay, he turns down a permanent position with the Illustrated London News because it conflicts with his latest fancy, experiments with electricity, which he believes may enable some form of time travel. His family’s exasperation turns to real outrage when he decides to court and marries their governess, Emily (Claire Foy). The courtship is both sweet and ridiculous. Wain is inexperienced with women and incredibly inept, with no idea how to approach Emily or what reaction to expect. Emily, fortunately, is a perfect match for him, as hopelessly gawky and artless as Wain, as well as intensely inquisitive and full of enthusiasm about many subjects. They marry, over the family’s strong objections and the threat of social sanction.

It is shortly after his wedding that Wain’s career takes a turn. He and his wife adopt a stray cat, which Wain draws or paints in his spare time. The odd, anthropomorphic images of cats that he produces are familiar now, and the style has been copied endlessly; but at the time, they were seen as something entirely new. Wain’s paintings of cats showed them expressing human emotions, in a way that walks a fine line between endearing and creepy; and often engaged in human activities as well. Victorians adored them, to the extent that, as the film’s introduction pointed out, it completely changed the way cats were perceived. Wain becomes something of a hero among cat-fanciers.

Wain being who he was, the story does not end here, much less end happily. He manages to repeatedly turn success into failure and to disastrously mismanage his unexpected fame and fortune. Tragedy strikes his otherwise happy marriage to Emily, a subject which the film deals with sympathetically but also with the quirkiness Wain brought to every aspect of his life; he is as awkward and peculiar in grief as at any other time. He becomes more eccentric as time goes on and his troubles increase, developing and experimenting with increasingly bizarre theories, including one involving a natural connection between cats and electricity. His obsessions begin to develop into something more serious, as expressed in the changing style of his artwork, which toward the end becomes what can only be called futuristic: multi-colour, Peter Max-style images of cats that seem to be electrified. The film takes Wain to the end of his life, allowing it to be seen at least partly from Wain’s own abnormal but ultimately optimistic perspective.

Cumberbatch’s performance as Louis Wain is the making of the film; it allows him to be both pitiful and hilarious. He is eccentric, awkward, constantly distracted, essentially friendly but with disturbingly intermittent social skills. As a lover, he is hopelessly at sea, yet exuding naive passion and sincerity. As an artist, he comes across as constantly attempting to balance his cleverness and his peculiar insights with the burden of having to live in the real world. The complex, inventive performance lets us see the man behind the strangeness, and make him a sympathetic character rather than a curiosity. 

The script, co-written by the director, takes a subject that could easily become a mere Victorian novelty or a subject of ridicule, and expands it into a funny but compassionate study of an absolute nonconformist and outsider, not by choice but by nature. It manages to appreciate Wain as the offbeat but genuinely talented artist he was and acknowledges that he had visionary qualities along with his delusional notions, without for a moment glossing over his general strangeness or bypassing his ludicrous side.

The film is almost always funny, even at its most tragic, and finds a way to give Wain a happy ending according to his own unique perspective. The look of the film also makes the most of Wain’s artwork, showcasing its weirdness with the setting of everyday Victorian life. It even allows cats to occasionally take on the significance Wain himself would have granted them, to hilarious effect. The script brings the unqualified oddity that was Louis Wain to life and provides a meaningful background for the success of his unusual artwork.